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the Complete Review
the complete review - travel

The Book of Travels

Ḥannā Diyāb

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Title: The Book of Travels
Author: Ḥannā Diyāb
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: (1764) (Eng. 2021)
Length: 589 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Book of Travels - US
The Book of Travels - UK
The Book of Travels - Canada
D'Alep à Paris - France
Von Aleppo nach Paris - Deutschland
directly from: NYU Press
  • Arabic title: كتاب السياحة‎
  • Translated by Elias Muhanna
  • Edited by Johannes Stephan
  • Foreword by Yasmine Seale
  • Afterword by Paulo Lemos Horta
  • Also translated by Paul Lunde, as The Man Who Wrote Aladdin (2020)
  • This edition published in two volumes
  • This is a bilingual edition, with the Arabic text printed facing the English translation

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting broad slice of those times, well-recounted

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 19/9/2016 Tilman Spreckelsen
Süddeutsche Zeitung . 18/7/2016 Hans Pleschinski
Le Temps . 17/7/2015 Sylvie A.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Was für ein Fund ! (...) Das schönste an diesem prächtigen historischen Reisebericht aber ist, dass sich sein Autor als Erzähler von Gnaden erweist. Er weiß genau, wie er Informationen zunächst zurückhält, um seine Geschichten spannender zu machen, er schwelgt in Reichtum und Armut gleichermaßen, liebt Schicksale, die sich urplötzlich ändern und schiebt gern Untergeschichten in seine Episoden ein -- alles in verblüffender Weise so, wie man es aus Tausendundeiner Nacht kennt. (...) Natürlich ist diese Edition kein Seitenstück zu Tausendundeiner Nacht. Aber sie wirft ein wundervolles Schlaglicht auf die Welt, in der sie entstanden ist und fortgeschrieben wurde. Zudem vermittelt sie die Bekanntschaft mit einem ungemein klarsichtigen Beobachter, der das prachtverliebte Paris Ludwigs XIV. von einer Seite zeigt, die man nicht oft zu sehen bekommt." - Tilman Spreckelsen, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Die Erinnerungen Hannas sind eine so merkwürdige Lektüre, wie es der Reisebericht eines Bremers zu selben Zeit nach Aleppo wäre. In Hannas Zeilen nehmen wir Europa mit leichtem Schwindel wahr. Ein Karussell von Eindrücken dreht sich um den Syrer, der dessen Mechanismus kaum entschlüsseln kann. (...) Wie vor Kinderaugen lebt in Hannas Bericht ein altes Europa auf, und der geschundene Nahe Osten entfaltet seinen Zauber. Zwanglos vereint Hanna Diyāb Orient und Okzident zu Gefilden, in denen man mit Zuversicht und Charme sein Leben meistern kann." - Hans Pleschinski, Süddeutsche Zeitung

  • "Ecrit dans un style vivant et direct qui tranche agréablement sur nombre de récits de voyage plus savants, son récit présente une sorte d’envers du décor de l’orientalisme naissant. (...) Autre classique du voyage en Occident: l’efficacité. Sur ce point, Hanna Dyâb se montre un observateur nuancé, qui ne s’en tient pas aux merveilles technologiques" - Sylvie A., Le Temps

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       As has finally become more widely acknowledged and known, Ḥannā Diyāb played a significant role in the shaping of modern versions of the collection of stories famous as the Thousand and One Nights, as the source for several of the stories Antoine Galland included in his translation of the work -- including 'Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp' and 'ʿAlī Bābā and the Forty Thieves'. (Paulo Lemos Horta -- who contributes the Afterword to this book, 'Hannā Diyāb and the Thousand and One Nights' --, wrote about him and the Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights in the fascinating Marvellous Thieves.) In the early eighteenth century the Syrian Maronite from Aleppo Diyāb accompanied Frenchman Paul Lucas on his travels in the Mediterranean region and then to Paris as dragoman -- acting as an interpreter as well as authority on the Middle East -- and it is in Paris, in 1709, that he met Galland.
       Diyāb's The Book of Travels is his account of the journey that took him from his native Syria to Cyprus, Egypt, what are now Libya and Tunisia, Corsica, Italy, and then France -- as well as Turkey, on the way back -- and his experiences in (and getting to) these various places. While he writes at some length on his time in Paris, Galland and Diyāb's important contribution to his work get only a short mention -- with Galland not even named. As Diyāb describes it:

     During that time I became discouraged and discontent with life in those parts. An old man, who was assigned to oversee the Arabic Library and could read Arabic well and translate texts into French, would visit us often. At the time, he was translating into French, among other works, the Arabic book The Story of the Thousand and One Nights. He would ask me to help him with things he didn't understand, and I'd explain them to him.
     The book was missing some "Nights," so I told him a few stories I knew and he used them to round out his work. He was very appreciative, and promised that if I ever needed anything, he would do his utmost to grant it.
       If this small episode is what Diyāb is now best-known for, this chronicle of his travels, written many years later, also attests to his fine storytelling abilities, both regarding his own experiences as well as in weaving in stories he learned of along the way. As succinct as he is about his collaboration with Galland (and numerous other episodes), The Book of Travels offers a great deal of material that is of considerable interest.
       Diyāb explains and excuses the presentation of the material, pointing out the distance from which he is writing; as he notes when describing some events at Versailles:
I've faithfully recounted everything that took place, without any additions or omissions. But I've also been brief about it, so the reader won't suspect that I dreamt all this up. After all, I witnessed many things on my journey that I haven't set down in writing, and that haven't remained in my memory these past fifty-four years. As I now write this account of my voyage, it is the year 1763. I visited Paris in 1709. Is it possible I could have retained everything I saw and heard in perfect detail ? Surely not.
       Recognition of what the manuscript of The Book of Travels represents only came very recently. It was not published after Diyāb completed it, and only one known manuscript survives, in the Vatican Apostolic Library. The first ten or so pages of that manuscript are missing -- which also led to it long being categorized as 'anonymous'. Only in recent years, after its authorship was established, has an Arabic edition been published, as well as translations into French, German, and now English.
       While Diyāb's presence and some of his activity in Paris were known -- not least through Galland's journals --, scholars were long unaware that Diyāb had written his own account of his travels. (The 'master' (as he generally refers to Paul Lucas) he accompanied did publish his own, extensive travelogues -- but, astonishingly, apparently never once mentioned Diyāb in them, a fascinating 'oversight'.)
       Despite its opening pages having been lost, The Book of Travels gives the full story of Diyāb's travels with Lucas and beyond. It begins with the Christian Diyāb at a monastery, having left his native Aleppo and preparing to join the order. He doesn't stick it out, however, and returns to Aleppo -- only to find himself struggling to get a job. After three months without success he resigns himself to trying his luck elsewhere -- only to learn that a foreigner whom he had already heard about, Paul Lucas ("a traveler dispatched by the sultan of France") was in town; as luck would have it, Lucas needed someone who could act as interpreter and the multilingual Diyāb proved the ideal travel-companion. Lucas also promised Diyāb that he'd arrange a position for him at the Arabic Library when they reached Paris, which sounded good, too. (Lucas was not able to keep the promise, however, one of the reasons a frustrated Diyāb the would leave Paris.) As someone he consults tells Diyāb when he is weighing this offer: "This is your chance -- take it !"
       Lucas traveled: "in search of old chronicles and of medallions -- coins struck by kings of old -- as well as particular plants to be found in this part of the world". He often presented himself as a doctor, offering medical help and advice, opening some doors to what was of greatest interest to him -- specifically, obtaining old coins and gemstones, which he had a great eye for. Diyāb is impressed by Lucas' medical knowledge -- though he was not, in fact, a doctor -- while he does present him otherwise as somewhat slimy in his dealings, taking advantage where he could. (On his return trip east, after leaving Lucas in Paris, Diyāb also comes to pretend he is a doctor -- with some success, though he also repeatedly finds himself in somewhat uncomfortable situations because of it.)
       Much of The Book of Travels follows Lucas and his entourage slowly making their way to France, with numerous stops along the way where various valuables are obtained. Lucas even gets his hands on a mummy, an already hard to obtain -- much less smuggle out -- object at the time. They also obtain several jerboas, which will then make a great impression when they reach Versailles, where they are a complete novelty. (The dauphin has: "an enormous drawing in which all the animals of the world were represented, with the exception of these particular ones".) Lucas is systematic and efficient, including in how he has the things he collects shipped from along the way via the local French consuls.
       Travel is complicated and often dangerous, with Diyāb experiencing terrible storms and the ships almost always worried about encounters with pirates (of which there are several over the course of the journeys, too). Several times, Diyāb suffers great hardships -- food and water runs out, or then in Paris he happens to be there during the coldest winter in Europe in five hundred years, in 1709. (One hopes that Diyāb was exaggerating when he records that: "Many people even died while relieving themselves, because the urine froze in their urethras as it left their bodies, and killed them".) Meanwhile, in Egypt he at one point doesn't heed local advice to sleep indoors and is so attacked by mosquitoes that his whole face swelled up.
       Diyāb offers an interesting record of and perspective on the different places he visits. Much has to do with how permission is obtained to enter or leave a place, with Lucas generally being treated as a VIP (which Diyāb also benefits from). They travel at a fairly leisurely pace, and Diyāb doesn't go into that much detail about what he sees, but gives a good general impression -- especially of what is strange to him, such as the sight of unveiled women -- and does describe a few striking sites, not least the Tower of Skulls (in Djerba): "three tall towers in the square, each built in the shape of a sugar cake, and made entirely of human skull". (He hastens to add: "We were astonished by this dreadful sight", but you have to love the 'sugar cake' comparison.)
       In Europe Diyāb has to adjust to some of the local conditions, and occasionally has trouble doing so, as in Marseille, when he wants to relieve himself. He can't find the bathroom at the inn he is put up in, and when he is directed to use the chamber pot under his bed: "It dawned on me that they had no latrines ! I had no choice but to leave the inn right away".
       The great city of Paris of course impresses -- "How marvelous Paris was, in all its immensity !" -- and Diyāb is even presented to the king, Louis XIV. Paris is an interesting experience for him -- aside from the bitter cold spell -- but his future remains in some doubt, that promised library position never materializing. Exasperated, he eventually complains: "I can't bear to stay in this country any longer !" Lucas wants to hold onto him, but Diyāb grabs what seems to be an opportunity, and though it doesn't work out as hoped he continues on the path home, his journey also marked by quite a bit of adventure and danger. (Diyāb does meet Lucas again in Aleppo, as Lucas travels east yet again, and there don't seem to be too many hard feelings when they get together -- with Lucas even finding a (temporary) cure for Diyāb's mother's deep melancholy.)
       Along with memorable descriptions of things such as executions, Diyāb also intersperses a few nice little stories in his narrative. Impressed (and fooled) by a trompe l'œil, he recounts some amusing stories about the artist for example, while from Livorno he takes a tale of a "sly swindler" who convinced the local Grand Duke to sell him the sun. Diyāb clearly had a talent for story-telling, and puts it to good use here as well.
       The Book of Travels is an entertaining travelogue, describing the varied places Diyāb visits, and these times, vividly and well. There is much one might have wanted to hear more about in greater detail, but there's certainly no shortage of either the exciting or unusual here. Along the way, and even in France, Diyāb meets people from his part of the world, showing a remarkable net of connection -- a world already quite globalized in some ways, even as in others, such as the constant threat of pirates and the like, it is still very backward.
       Diyāb is a good guide -- deferential (certainly to Lucas) and not pushing himself to the fore, yet also strong- and independent-minded. He, and his account, are mostly very unfussy -- surprising, given some of the ups and downs along the way. (Typically, Diyāb seems most frustrated when he is just stuck in place: though he settled down in Aleppo after returning from his voyage, until that point he definitely shows considerable restlessness.)
       The Book of Travels is a fine and interesting work of travel-literature, and would be of considerable interest even without the Thousand and One Nights-association. Diyāb's perspective on these places, in these times, is interesting -- and indeed one wishes there were more. What there is is well-told -- The Book of Travels is an enjoyable read -- with quite a few memorable episodes and stories.
       The supporting material -- notes, as well as the Foreword (by Yasmine Seale) and Afterword (by Paulo Lemos Horta) are informative and helpful. Most readers -- including this one -- might not benefit much from having the original Arabic text facing the English, but it's still nice to have. All in all, this is an impressive work and edition.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 May 2021

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The Book of Travels: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Syrian Maronite Ḥannā Diyāb (حَنّا دِياب‎) was born around 1687.

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© 2021 the complete review

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